How to Use Smart Albums in Photos for Mac

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Smart albums are like normal albums, but they are automatically kept current by the Photos app. They work because of a set of rules you dictate and then they update automatically as you add more photos to your collection.

If you are totally new to organizing your photos on your Mac, albums are just like photo albums in the real world, except they are stored digitally. You can create as many albums as you like on your Mac, adding images to the album as you like. When you create an ordinary album (rather than a Smart Album), you manually drag images into the album as you gather pictures together.

Since Smart Albums are created by you just once, they can be a sort of secret weapon for finding your photos quickly. Smart Albums will prove to be very helpful if you also use an iPhone to take pictures and iCloud to sync them across all Apple devices.

This article focuses on using Photos 2.0 and a Mac running macOS Sierra

You Already Use Smart Albums

Photos on the Mac has smart albums that you already use. For example, when you define an image as a Favorite it is automatically added to your Favorites album.

Similarly, other smart albums in Photos gather items including Screenshots, Bursts, Panoramas, Live Photos and items within pre-defined smart albums.

These are all great examples of how you can use Smart Albums to create useful, intelligent collections of your photos.

Create a Smart Album on Your Mac

It’s easy to create a smart album using Photos on your Mac.

Method One

  1. Open Photos and choose New Smart album in the File menu.
  2. The smart album criteria setting window will appear.

Method Two

  1. Tap the + (Plus) button at the top of the Photos app window. It will be the third icon from the right-hand side. The Share and Search items are to the right of it.
  2. You will be presented with a dropdown menu from which you can choose to create the following: Album, Smart Album, Book, Calendar, Card, Slideshow, Prints
  3. You should choose Smart Album.
  4. The smart album criteria setting window will appear.


Understand Smart Album Criteria

You will define your smart album criteria in the simple window that appears, where you will see an editable field called Smart Album Name.

Underneath that item, you will see the phrase: Match the following condition, under which you will usually see three drop-down menus. To the right of these, you will see a + sign, and underneath you may see the number of items that match the current search (if you are editing an existing album).​​

Let’s quickly look at what options are available in each menu from left to right. These items are contextual, so as you change them you may see different choices appear in the other two items.

  • The left-hand item: Says Photo by default. Other choices include Album, Date, Description, Filename, Keyword, Person, Photo, Text, Title. You can also set this item to Aperture, Camera Model, Flash, Focal Length, ISO, Lens, and Shutter Speed.
  • The middle item: This item is the conditionals box. You use this to help define your Smart album search criteria. You will find slightly different options in this box depending on which options you chose in the left-hand menu. For example, if you choose Person in box one then you can choose includes, does not include, is, is not, starts with and ends within the second field.
  • The right-hand field: This field also changes in reaction to the choices made in the other two fields, the choices you will find here change as you change those other items.

How to Use Multiple Criteria

You aren’t confined to using only one set of criteria. 

Each set of conditions is hosted on a single line, but you can add additional rows (containing new conditions) by tapping the + button to the right, or tap - (minus) to remove a row.

When you add one or more rows you will see the Match box appear just above the conditions you set. This is where you choose to match any or all of the conditions you set.

For example, if you wanted pictures of taken after a certain date that did not include a person your Person collection already recognizes, you might set the top conditionals to only include photos taken within your chosen date range, and then create a second row of conditions which states that Person is not [name of person]

You can combine numerous conditions to help refine your results — just tap the Plus box to introduce them, or tap the Minus box to remove a set. 

Do make sure you have set the any or all Match box setting correctly. 

Album Management

Now you know how to create one of these albums, let's explore some ways you might use them. You can use them in any way you like, but these examples should help show how these smart searches can help you.

One way to use Smart Albums is to help you clean up a messy photo library.

The Favorites album grows as your collection grows. Eventually, it becomes challenging to find those images you are looking for when you need them.

A Smart album approach to help might be:

  1. Create a new Smart Album.
  2. In the first row of conditions set Photo/is/favorite
  3. Tap + (Plus) to add another set of conditions.
  4. In the second row set Date, is in the range, and define an appropriate time period.
  5. Now set the Match item to all
  6. The Smart Album you create now contains all your favorite images captured between the dates you set, making them easier to find.

Find a Face

If you have trained Photos to identify the Faces, you can create Smart Albums to gather images of people you know. The idea is to create a set of conditions that will identify multiple people and look for images containing all of them. 

  1. Set the first row to Person/is/name a person from the drop-down list
  2. Tap the Plus (+) button to create an additional set of conditions
  3. In the second row repeat Person/is/name a person, but set this to the other person’s name
  4. Repeat this until you have created a condition for everyone you seek
  5. Now you should set Match to all

The album should now only contain pictures that feature all the people you've chosen to include. You can add as many people as you like by extending the search criteria with additional rows of conditions.

For this to work you must be familiar with People in Photos first.

iCloud Photo Problems

The great thing about Photos on a Mac is that it archives your images using iCloud Photo Library. Once they are archived you can access them from all your devices.

This means all your images should be safe if one of your Macs or iOS devices breaks down. But how can you be certain all your images have uploaded to your online photo library? With this album recipe, of course:

  1. Create a Smart Album and set it as follows: Photo/is/unable to upload to iCloud Photo Library.
  2. Name the album

Any image you find in this album will now be one that Photos is for some reason unable to upload to iCloud.

The Places Problem Fix

There are some limits to the data Smart Albums criteria understand.

You can't filter your images using Places data, which is strange as the information definitely exists as Apple uses it to create the Places album inside Photos.

Here is a workaround:

  1. Open the Places album and select the location you want to include in the Smart Album search you hope to build.
  2. All the images taken in that location will appear in your new Places collection.
  3. Select one, and tap Command and A (Select All).
  4. All the images in the collection will be selected.
  5. Next, in Menu bar choose File and New Album.
  6. A dialog box will appear to tell you you’re about to add these images to a new album.
  7. Give it a suitable name.

You now have a non-Smart Album containing images taken in a certain place and can use this as a source for a smart album search using Places-based data.

Places Workaround in Action

Now you can create a Smart Album that uses the Places information you used to source images for the album you just made.

  1. When you create the Smart Album you define this new album as a source within your search using this set of conditions: New Smart Album>Album/is/[name of album you made]. 
  2. Now you can define the rest of your search in a second row of conditions. These may insist that only images featuring a particular Person are included. This approach means you can create Smart Album that provides you with images taken in Portugal that also include your girlfriend’s face, for example.

You can also use this tip to enable other kinds of search. 

'Photos' are smart enough to recognize objects in your images. In the Search box (top right of main Photos window) you can type words for objects like cars, trees, dogs, rivers. You can then select and export the results to non-smart albums that you can subsequently use as source albums for Smart Album searches.

Editing Smart Albums

You can edit Smart Albums once you have created them. Just select the album in the sidebar and, in the Menu choose File>Edit Smart Album.

The familiar conditions browser window will appear and you can alter or delete conditions you have set until you get the Smart Album working the way you want it to. Just click OK when you are done.

Too Many Albums on Your Mac?

As time goes by you may find that you have created so many Smart and non-smart albums on your Mac that it becomes difficult to find the ones you need. One great way to get through this is to create a new folder and pop some of your albums inside it.

To create a folder, open the File menu and choose New Folder. You’ll need to give the folder a name, and then drag albums you want inside it there.

Perhaps you have a lot of collections of holiday snaps that could be gathered together in a ‘Holidays’ folder, or a series of family albums that might logically be popped inside a ‘Family’ folder. When you place an album inside a folder nothing happens to the photographs, they just become a little more organized which helps you stay on top of the collections you keep in Photos.